Everyone has an opinion, and in the age of social media and sharing art (and writing) online that means you're open to feedback from people of all kinds. That's a wonderful thing, until you see a negative comment or question. Heck, it may start to feel Super Not Okay even if it isn't downright mean.
I know how it feels to have your creative voice silenced by a cacophony of opinions.
I like to call it Opinion Overload, and I have some recommendations for you if you're struggling with feedback on your creative work.
Let me tell you a story . . .
When I was studying fine art in college, I had the great and terrible experience of being surrounded by other artists with a variety of strengths, interests, and backgrounds. I was in painting classes with photographers. Abstract artists and sculptors were my teachers, and I was able to gather feedback from my classmates and professors regularly, both in casual conversation and in formal critiques. It was so fun and satisfying to expose my brain to fresh insight and learn the fundamentals . . . until I hit my final year of study.
I earned my degree in fine art by completing a 5-year program in 4 years, with the final year dedicated primarily to working on my thesis. I had my own studio space with the other BFA students, who were tremendously talented people. I was so excited to have my own space and the literal and figurative room to create anything I wanted. Gone were the days of focusing on bland studies. Hello, creative freedom!
Unfortunately it wasn't what I hoped it would be.
I spent a year sitting on the floor of my studio cutting up paper, slapping paint on canvas, and being told that everything I made was mediocre and disappointing. For every kind word I received from my classmates I had at least two professors telling me to work harder and try something else.
Those drawings on the wall that brought me joy? The response to that work was: "You aren't going to do that, are you?"
No. I didn't do that. I spent a year making things that didn't feel like me and that I didn't enjoy. Every time I started developing ideas that excited me I was encouraged to change direction. Professors would give me feedback in one visit and then tell me the opposite of that feedback in their next visit. I was completely lost on what I wanted to make and what my professors expected of me.
Conflicting feedback is a nightmare for a high-achieving perfectionist.
I spent a lot of time being angry and tired.
Eventually I stopped inviting professors into my studio, because I realized their feedback was more harmful than it was helpful. It was the right move, and my grade suffered for it.
In the end, I gave the faculty no choice but to choose work for my thesis show from a collection of scroll paintings I had made on the floor of my apartment a week prior. My three paintings were tucked into a corner of the gallery, which left no space for them to be viewed as they were intended.
Now, years later, I feel like I'm finally starting rediscover my creative voice. I frequently wonder how far ahead I would be if I hadn't allowed other people to set me back when I was in school.
The thing is, I was pushed totally off track by feedback that wasn't even meant to be harmful.
Most of us know what to do if someone is needlessly rude to us online.
We can dismiss trolls or family members who know nothing about art, but how can we resist the effect of feedback that isn't outright cruel? What if it's just a slew of off-putting questions or unsolicited critiques?
How can we make sure that our creative vision won't be drowned by a deluge of other people's opinions?
I truly believe that my professors wanted me to succeed. They had been so supportive through the years building up to my thesis year, and my relationships with them had always been positive. There were times when I had to address things that were completely out of line (If you know me, I'm sure you know that I was capable of it!), but even then I felt like everyone was grasping at straws to figure out how to help me. Unfortunately, no one seemed to understand what I was struggling with or who I was as an artist, and I couldn't figure out how to communicate that to them.
What I learned and can recommend if you're suffering from Opinion Overload:
1) Listen to yourself before you start listening to everyone else.
If I don't know what's important to me, I don't have the right filter for all of that external feedback. I can't separate what's helpful from what's unhelpful, and I can't know how to use it all. Sometimes I just need to tune everything out until I feel like I understand my own goals and interests again.
2) Sometimes you need to make a whole lot of shit to get to the good stuff. You're allowed to make bad art.
One of the best things I did during that year was focus on 1hr black and white acrylic paintings. That was actually an awesome idea given to me by a professor. Limiting myself to 1hr kept me from getting stuck on paintings that weren't working and gave me permission to follow my impulses with my compositions. I generated a lot of new ideas by doing that.
3) When evaluating feedback, always ask yourself: "Does this align with my creative vision?"
The feedback may not be objectively and completely wrong, but it might be wrong for you. If making changes according to that feedback is taking you away from what's most important to you in your creative work in general (or just the piece you're working on), it probably isn't right for you.
4) Consider where the feedback's coming from.
The person or people offering feedback may have the best of intentions. They may have a different background, which prevents them from fully understanding your perspective. They may have different interests, which makes them feel inclined to push you into a different direction. Considering their intentions and point of view may help to lessen the sting of harsh or insensitive feedback. Even if you're not feeling salty about it, reflecting on those things might help you to translate their input and use it wisely.
Ultimately, you are in control of your own creative output and direction.
The best thing you have to offer, creatively, is art born from your authentic, unique perspective. We're all one-of-a-kind amalgamations of thoughts and experiences, including the feedback we've received from others throughout our lives. That's a magical thing! Why? Because that means each of us is an original, with stories no one else can tell the same way we can (visually or otherwise).
While your perspective may not speak to everyone, it could be everything to someone. Even if it isn't, creating for yourself is still a noble and worthwhile endeavor.
If you need to take time now and then to refocus and check in with your creative voice without everyone else's noise-- That's okay. You don't have to be open to feedback all the time.
If you are sharing your work and grappling with others' responses to it, I hope you'll learn over time to have a positive relationship with that input.